ANCHORAGE - In a Smithsonian warehouse in suburban Maryland last week, five Inupiat Eskimos from Unalakleet puzzled over boxes of ivory charms and figurines that have been in the museum's collection since the mid-1800s.
Museum officials invited the group to examine more than 370 artifacts that are part of the Smithsonian's 10,000-piece Alaska collection.
The Unalakleet group is the first in a series of groups from across Alaska that the Smithsonian hopes will come examine the collection over the next 2 1/2 years. The trips are part of a $500,000 program funded largely by the Rasmuson Foundation and Phillips Alaska.
The idea is that people of the culture who still practice traditions may be able to provide insights into the objects made by their ancestors, said Aron Crowell, director of the Anchorage office of the Arctic Studies Center. Connecting with the artifacts also helps the community retain its culture.
A 1990 law forced museums to give back bones and artifacts taken from graves, as well as ceremonial objects. One of the surprise benefits of the law, anthropologists said, was that elders examining the museum's holdings were able to provide the curators with new information.
And the visits sometimes revived memories. Long-forgotten names would slip from an elders lips as they held old tools.
The items the Unalakleet group examined aren't covered by the repatriation law because they aren't sacred or funerary, Crowell said. They may be sent back to Alaska, though.
One of the goals of the project is to identify objects to send to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art for long-term loan, he said. Smaller exhibits may also travel to the villages the objects came from, he said.
The Arctic Studies Center, a division of the Smithsonian, also hopes to show the collection more broadly. Pictures of the items, along with elders' interpretations, will be posted on a new Web site, he said.
The Unalakleet group was curious about the ivory talismans, particularly one about the size of a car key that had a caribou head carved on one end and a hoof carved on the other. But they didn't know much about it.
It's not surprising, said Stephen Loring, an anthropologist with the Arctic Studies Center. The Christian missionaries came early to Unalakleet, he said. By the time the collectors came, the culture was at the cusp of change.
When it came to tools used to hunt, fish and cure skins, the group had a lot to say. All four, even 80-year-old Anna Etageak and 70-year-old Oscar Koutchak, still hunt and fish and put up food. The uses of many of these old tools came readily to them.
"The subsistence way of life has perhaps changed the least," Crowell said. "The hunting knowledge has been passed down because it comes into play every day, every year."